Are Capitalists Nicer These Days?

The problem is the capitalist system, not the capitalists. This is the high-minded thing to say; and the general point is unassailable.

In non-economic spheres of life, capitalists, big and small, are like everybody else. Much that they do is distinctively noxious, but the economic structure makes them do it.

However, in an age when the very idea of class struggle is widely disparaged, a healthy animosity towards the few who own almost everything should not be dismissed out of hand.

In one way or another, hatred of capitalism’s high-flyers, not just capitalism itself, played a positive role in every progressive social movement of the past two centuries.

We would now be worse off if workers and other victims of capitalists’ predations had insisted on being hostile to the system only and not to the predators at its commanding heights as well.

Nowadays, though, all we hear about, in liberal circles especially, is civility. It is a virtue not much practiced, but extravagantly praised.

The idea that civility should be maintained at all times – in politics especially — is a conceit of recent vintage. Perhaps, in a different possible world, some good could come of it. In the actual world, it is more likely to be disabling than constructive.

A wiser principle would be to accord civility only where civility is due — to persons and opinions that, right or wrong, really do merit respect.

This standard would rule out capitalist predators.

But class hatred is hard to maintain towards a few very conspicuous late model capitalists: the kind behind iPhones and Google searches and social media. They seem too hip to hate.

Yes, they are part of corporate America. Across the political spectrum, it is widely understood that they merit contempt, if only on those grounds. In their own confused way, even some Tea Party activists would agree.

But aren’t they just harmless geeks bestowing marvels upon the world? They hardly seem like the unprincipled, cutthroat bastards of capitalism’s dark past.

So what if they are rich beyond measure, or if they are a leading force behind corporate domination of everything? They can’t help it; they are too damned smart.

With yet another electoral contest just two years off in which bought and paid for capitalist hacks will again contend against bought and paid for capitalist hacks, this is a false and disabling impression, urgently in need of rectification.

To this end, we need to look past the meretriciously pleasing corporate campuses of Silicon Valley and similar locales. We need to restore perspective.

Therefore, think Wall Street! Think corporate boardrooms!   Think the nooks and crannies where sharks abound and sleaze is everywhere about.

Worse still, think of the Koch brothers and their ilk – buying political influence at local, state and national levels.

Or, in that vein, reflect on Sheldon Adelson, casino magnate extraordinaire. His reach is global – from Hong Kong and Macau to Las Vegas – and his heart and soul are with the Likud. If the thought of him is too much to bear, laughter can help; the man is a textbook example of a schlemiel.

And, while we’re at it, we must not forget the hordes of lesser, but still filthy rich, Koch-Adelson wannabes who serve themselves and Mammon, and who feed on other peoples’ money.

Towards them, class hatred comes more naturally than civility.   It is more salutary too.

But then, tugging in the opposite direction, there are those lovable geeks, barely past puberty and already at the commanding heights of the world economy, telling us, in effect, to stop worrying and love the capitalist system.

Why not, after all? It doesn’t look like they are exploiting anybody or doing anyone (except their competitors) harm.

Quite the contrary: they shower their employees with amenities. And instead of living in company towns and shopping in company stores, those employees, some of them anyway, are so well paid that, with company help, they ruthlessly gentrify everything in sight.

Yes, they are the modern day counterparts of the tycoons workers used to hate, but who can hate tycoons who provide consumers with harmless, well-designed and eminently useful delights; and who offer user-friendly services that nearly everyone these days finds indispensable.

Could it be that they are the vanguard of a friendlier, hipper – nicer – capitalism? It appears so.

But appearances are deceiving.

* * *

In capitalist economies, the way to acquire untold riches is to gain monopoly, or near monopoly, control over something for which there is a great demand.

The “invisible hand” of the market then does the rest.

It wasn’t always so.   In pre-capitalist societies, monopoly control of the means of “legitimate” violence did all the work.

Warlords, nobles and kings relied on visible hands to establish and secure their riches. Their wealth was based on plunder and theft.

They sometimes also relied on the softer power of religious ideologies, but more for ex post facto justification than for securing wealth directly. For that, the use or threat of force was essential.

The invisible hand of the market seems benign, and the contrast with overt force seems as clear as can be. In capitalist societies, these understandings seem almost commonsensical.

And, for inquiring minds, libertarian philosophy defends the intuitions behind them, and gives them theoretical expression.

Nevertheless, the difference between the invisible hand of the market and the visible hand of the state, or of pre-state political institutions, is not as great as is commonly supposed.

Market allocations are unintended consequences of multiple, uncoordinated exchange relations, each of which is entered into voluntarily – without express coercion.

Libertarians and other pro-capitalist ideologues take this to mean that they are free.

They also take it to mean that they are just – the guiding idea being that individuals have rights to do what they want with the resources they own, provided only that they do not use them to harm identifiable others.

On these grounds and perhaps others as well, market generated distributions of income and wealth in private property regimes are, in the libertarian view, beyond reproach.

Therefore if, on this basis, the very few end up with everything or almost everything, while the vast majority have nothing or almost nothing, no one can justifiably complain on grounds of freedom or justice.

More equal distributions might be preferable on other grounds, and it might be admirable – or even obligatory – for the fortunate few, along with everyone else who is able, to relieve the distress of the many through voluntary gifting.

But coercively redistributing market-generated outcomes would offend both freedom and justice. This, reduced to its essential core, is what libertarians believe, and what libertarian intuitions suggest.

The implication, then, is that anyone who rails against the rich – or, more precisely, against those whom capitalist markets made rich — is only venting envy.

Class hatred may come naturally, but we should just get over it.   Or should we?

* * *

For one thing, there is no reason why libertarians should have the final word.

The libertarian case for not blaming capitalists for the harm they do, provided they play by the rules, is bolder and more direct than familiar liberal pieties about the virtues of civility. But this is about all that can be said in its favor.

Were the libertarian view taken on board, principled reasons for hating the most egregious beneficiaries of the capitalist system would have to go; but so too would principled reasons for hating the capitalist system itself – at least for anyone who understands freedom and justice in the way libertarians do.

These are powerful conclusions, but they hardly compel assent. There are many reasons why; that libertarian understandings of freedom and justice are flawed is high on the list.

Nearly all of modern social and political philosophy, minus its libertarian strain, could be enlisted in support of this assessment.

Fortunately, there is no need to do anything like that here. It should suffice to point out that, even were the libertarian case sound, it would apply only to ideal capitalist markets. Nothing like them has ever actually existed, except in highly artificial conditions, and nothing like them ever will.

Libertarians know this, of course, but they downplay the importance of the difference between the ideal and the actual because they think that actual cases approximate the ideal closely enough.

They do not. The ideal case libertarians imagine, where force plays no determinative role, is profoundly unrealistic because real world capitalist markets do not, and probably cannot, exist outside a coercive infrastructure.

Moreover, it is plain that the old way that great fortunes were built is still with us, notwithstanding the ubiquity of capitalist market relations. Force is no longer all there is, but it is as important as it ever was.

This is especially evident in places where capitalist markets impinge on pre- or post-capitalist economic structures.

Potentates in so-called developing countries feed off the invisible hand of the market; so do post-Soviet oligarchs. But they both rely on the states they control to create and sustain their claims to the resources that markets then generously reward.

It is not much different in “mature” capitalist economies where the role force plays is less transparent.   In developed – or, rather overripe — capitalist economies, the state metes out and sustains economic rents just as surely as anywhere in the world.

And, of course, state power underlies the legal framework within which markets operate; and is indispensable for securing the level of social order that is necessary for markets to function and flourish.

It would be fair to say that force, mediated through state power, is an inherent and inevitable feature of all real world economies in which capitalist markets distribute income and wealth.

So too therefore is political corruption. The forms and limits differ, but the reality is everywhere the same.

Monopoly control is inconceivable without it. And monopoly control is the royal road to preposterous wealth.

However, in today’s overripe capitalism, it is not the only road.

The others involve gambling – if not on sure bets, then on the next best thing.

Financial institutions have always played an indispensable role in capitalist economies. But in today’s capitalism, where opportunities for profitable investments in productive resources are few, finance has taken on a life of its own.

Casino capitalists have taken over all but the most mundane sectors of the banking, insurance and real estate industries.

And, using all their ingenuity, they have contrived means for making obscene amounts of money in ways that bear little or no connection to the “real” economy where goods and services are actually produced.

Financial speculation – essentially, high stakes gambling but with the fix more or less in – has become the motor of economic growth, replacing farms, factories, mines, and mills, and traditional (non-financial) service industries.

As a result, there are now more than a few outrageously rich “savvy businessmen,” as Barack Obama calls the financiers he courts. Some, probably most, are outright banksters.  But even those who observe the letter of the law operate under the protection of their friends in government.

They all take advantage of the economic “rents” the state establishes and maintains. They all make their money by milking the system egregiously.

But grotesquely successful financiers are the proverbial exceptions that prove the rule. To amass fortunes greater than the entire economies of Third World countries, the best way is still: monopolize, monopolize, monopolize!

* * *

The robber barons who made off like the bandits they were in the years between the Civil War and World War I figured this out a long time ago. Their later-day counterparts in Silicon Valley know it too.

The robber baron business can get nasty, and the robber barons of old were almost impossible not to hate.

More than a century on, the animosities they aroused are ancient history. With the passage of time, those long gone marauders of the industrial age, when thought about at all, just seem colorful.

It helps their reputations too that a few of them did estimable philanthropic work in their declining years, and that they established foundations that continue what they began.

Nevertheless, the undeniable truth continues to register: the robber barons were a heinous lot. Who but followers of Ayn Rand’s would disagree?

Are their counterparts these days any better?

They are certainly geekier and more hip, and they treat their workers, some of them anyway, a lot better.

This makes business sense: it would be counter-productive to super-exploit the creative types upon whose ingenuity tech corporations depend.

The others, the ones who do the heavy lifting, are another story.   Many of them toil out of sight halfway around the world, and the miseries the others endure are outshined by the spirited crowds on Google busses and the business-friendly scholars at Apple U.

The old time robber barons were inclined, when convenient, to pollute recklessly and to lay waste to the rivers and fields around their factories and mines. Their successors in the industries they pioneered are still at it

And, far from public view, so are their later-day counterparts in Silicon Valley and similar locales.   The difference is that, along with the factories that make the gadgets they sell, the environmental harms they cause are only evident thousands of miles away.

What is left in the part of the world Americans can see are lush corporate campuses – where life is good.

This is not exactly a public relations gimmick, though it might as well be. It is a consequence of the business model tech firms follow, and therefore ultimately an artifact of the kinds of things today’s robber barons monopolize.

From a public relations point of view, this has been a godsend for capitalism’s defenders. Merely by doing what robber barons do, today’s new model capitalists make capitalism look good.

Only a few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. But then, no one in corporate America had quite figured out how to take full advantage of the commercial possibilities opened up by taxpayer funded research and development in cybernetics and communications.

John D. Rockefeller’s advisors had him pass out shiny new dimes to street urchins. It made for good public relations – for himself and for his class.

The idea was to get people to stop hating capitalists and to love capitalism. But the method was demeaning. It was charity, at best; at worst, it was a desperate effort to buy love. These are not winning strategies.

It is far more effective to identify, as a capitalist, with worthy causes, especially ones to which liberal opinion-makers are drawn. Whole Foods’ boss John Mackey has been fighting unions this way for years, and he has plenty of company.

Because environmental issues, broadly conceived, are often involved in efforts of this kind, the phenomenon has come to be known as “green washing.”

Lately, as outright homophobia has declined in the West, Islamophobes in North America, Europe and Australia, and secular Zionists in Israel and abroad, have taken up “pink washing” to burnish their own, otherwise indefensible, reputations, and to tarnish their enemy’s.

There is no name for the phenomenon yet, but it would be fair to say that, deliberately or not, the hipster capitalists who make capitalism look cuddly and nice are up to the same tricks.

How ironic that, in an age of growing inequality and immiseration, brought on by the logic of capitalist development and exacerbated by neoliberal austerity policies – and at a time when the exigencies of keeping the capitalist system afloat include irreversible environmental damage and perpetual war — that high minded cultural sensibilities and causes would function to obscure awareness of the continuing – indeed, increasing – evils of the capitalist system!

If this is where liberal civility and libertarian ideology lead, then liberal civility and libertarian ideology be damned. In their stead, let salutary class hatred again have its day.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).